Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is Magic Hat Listening?

Are the Magic Hat Variety Paks about to start showing some real variety?

Ever since they released Circus Boy around the beginning of 2006, Magic Hat has been pimping it. Hard. They seemingly want to replicate the overwhelming success that they've enjoyed with the #9, and as such shove both beers in the face of the consumer at every chance they get. This includes putting them both in every mix pack they have offered from 2006 until present (the Mardi Gras, Pandora's Box, Summer Variety Show, Feast of Fools, Night of the Living Dead, Participation, Joe's Garage...and the list goes on). The formula has been simple: three bottles of #9, three bottles of Circus Boy, three bottles of the current seasonal offering and three bottles of a "special" beer such as one from their Mystery Batch Series or, of late, their Odd Notion Series. This quickly became a stale formula that drew complaints and negative feedback from craft beer lovers everywhere.

Well, it seems that Magic Hat has heard what many of their consumers have to say and is finally throwing wrench (a small one, but a wrench nonetheless) into their formula with the new Summer Scene Variety Pak. Yes, we're still getting the #9, the latest Odd Notion Beer (a Belgian Blonde), and their Summer seasonal (Wacko, a red colored beer made with beet sugar...that's right, I said beet sugar), but the Circus Boy has been axed in favor of their new-ish year round offering, Lucky Kat Ale, and I have to say that although I like but don't love both the #9 and Circus Boy, I too was sick of seeing them both in every Varity Pak and am quite happy with the decision and hope that something similar is done with future Variety Paks as opposed to this just being dumb luck this time around.

Yes, I understand the need to get flagship brands out there, but if it can be kept to one of the two flagships per Variety Pak with said brands alternating from season to season, then we're finally looking at some nicer packages. That said, I propose that the brewery take it one step further with one of these two options:

1. Utilize a Variety Pak format of three bottles each of either the #9 or Circus Boy, the current seasonal and a special series beer, but use that fourth slot to resurrect some of the great beer that Magic Hat has mysteriously retired over the years with little to no explanation, yet were loved and highly regarded by many. Sure, slow sales were likely the reason for their demise, because if they were selling they'd still be on the shelves today, but limited runs in seasonal packages are the perfect spot for these beers because variety packages are going to be released anyway as they almost always sell well on the novelty factor alone, and the resurrected beers wouldn't be competing against the other Magic Hat brands for six-pack shelf space. Let's see the return of Heart of Darkness, Humble Patience/Bob's 1st Ale, Fat Angel, Blind Faith, Ravell and others!

2. The Vermont-based Magic Hat recently merged with Seattle-based Pyramid Breweries. How about a real mix package that offers the best of both coasts: two bottles each of a flagship, a seasonal and a special release from Magic Hat and the same from Pyramid, all in one box?

Now those are two packages that I and many other beer enthusiasts would be all over.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some Devil

Back in mid 2008, Victory Brewing Company decided to play around a bit with their most popular beer: HopDevil Ale. They kept the hops exactly the same but substituted in a new yeast strain, Brettanomyces (or Brett), that is more "wild" in it's nature and as such would hopefully bring some new characteristics to the beer. The result was WildDevil, and it is now being bottled and offered on a wider scale. So, let's crack open a bottle and see how it stacks up against the original, which has always been one of my favorite Victory offerings.

It pours a medium amber color with a big frothy head that dissolves fairly quickly. Aroma is a bit mellower than expected, but nice. There's a fruity, juiciness (apple?) here that might even hint at bubble gum at times. This is much more muted than the HopDevil, and I suspect the flavor will be the same way.

The first few sips confirm my suspicions. This yeast has tamed the flavor for sure. There is still a nice hop presence that bites with citrus flavors and perhaps even a bit of that apple again, plus there's a spicy kick as well, but the palate is hit no where near as hard as with the HopDevil. Missing the most are the pine notes. The Brett helps to bring out some funkier, off-tasting flavours as well. I don't want to say this one is sour, because it's not, but there are definitely some tart characteristics floating about that mix with a very bread-like finish and aftertaste. There's a nice, fluffy and bubbly feel here that's almost Saison-like at times.

I've got to say that the Brett mellowed this beer out a lot, and in a good way. It's a bit more drinkable than the HopDevil but on a completely different level. I don't know that it's got that much of a Belgian feel to it as Victory has described (Stone Brewing Co.'s new Cali-Belgique IPA was much more Belgian-inspired/flavored than this one), but that isn't a knock in any way. I also don't understand why many people have noted that the WildDevil is barely distinguishable from the HopDevil. They're two completely different beers in my opinion and both are well worth your time.

Take Me to the River (Horse)

I first sampled River Horse's beers about a dozen or so years ago. From that time up until around late last summer, I had always found their overall portfolio to be mediocre at best. Sure, some of the bigger beers like the Tripel Horse were decent, but in the end there always seemed to be an overall lack of inspiration from the brewery. A general disregard for the public perception of their brand even. Anyway, back to late last summer: it was just about the one year anniversary of the purchase of the brewery by Glenn Bernabeo and Chris Walsh, and their efforts to reposition River Horse and take it to the next level along with Head Brewer Christian Ryan were finally starting to pay off.

It started (at least for me) with the Brewer's Reserve Series, which is a small(er) batch release of new styles from the brewery. First in the series was a tasty Double White, which was so successful that it was repackaged as their Double Wit and made available in four packs as a permanent fixture in the River Horse lineup. Next up was the Imperial Cherry Amber Ale which thankfully focused on the Amber portion of the name and kept the cherry notes to a drinkable minimum. The most recent in the series was the Oatmeal Milk Stout and it was far and away the best of the bunch. You may still be able to find some of it on the shelves, but fear not if you don't, as this one is also being resurrected later on in 2009. The coffee/chocolate/earthy malt blend here is just great and as such this was one of my favorite beers of 2008.

Along with the return of the Oatmeal Milk Stout, other beers to look for from River Horse in 2009 include their Hop-A-Lot-Amus, Dunkel Fester Lager, Hefe-Rye-zen (the next in the Brewer's Reserve series) and limited draft only releases like the already released Burnt Sugar Ale, Dubbel Honey Weizenbock and the summer release of the Huckleberry Wheat. Many of the existing River Horse styles are also going through a revitalization with a bit of recipe retooling as well. Finally, label branding is also being recharged with new graphics based around the logo shown above. What we're looking at here is basically a 180 from the previous regime. The enthusiasm from the new River Horse team has been nothing short of amazing and I am once again proud to have them represent New Jersey craft beer.

The one minor gripe I still have is that the cost of River Horse six pack is still about a dollar or two higher than others on the shelf that have been brought in from New England, the Midwest and Even the West Coast. Yes, I know that the hop shortage of the past few years, existing contracts, general production costs, etc can vary greatly from brewery to brewery, but the norm (and it is certainly not the rule) is that the local craft brewery is typically a touch cheaper on the shelves than the competition from other states, not the other way around.

That said, if the trade off for turning over the old ways of River Horse into what they are doing now is a bit higher of a price for much better beer and a passion behind it, then that's a deal I'm willing to make.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Two Breweries Enter the NJ Market

Just a quick post to note that folks in New Jersey should start seeing beer from both The Bruery and Laughing Dog Brewing on local store shelves soon.

I had the opportunity to sample some of The Bruery's stuff in New York City a few months back and must say that I was impressed by said samples and look forward to picking up their other offerings. Arizona beer enthusiasts should note that beers from The Bruery will also soon be available there as well.

Have not had the opportunity to try any of the Laughing Dog stuff yet, although I hope to remedy that this week, and will report back when I do. Very cool to see an Idaho brewery now represented here in the Garden State. It appears as if we are getting the Alpha Dog Imperial IPA, Devil Dog and DogZilla Black IPA from them to start. An email from owner/brewmaster Fred Colby also noted that they will be in New York and Delaware soon as well.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Twenty-Twenty-Twenty Four Hours to Go

About two weeks ago, a trip west to Seattle for the first time ever left me with just about 24 hours on the ground there in which to explore the beer culture of the city. Subtract time for meetings and sleep and my already limited time in town became that much more scarce.

After a quicker than expected cab ride into town, my first stop was the Pike Pub & Brewery. It's essentially a part of the Pike Place Market yet a touch beyond it by a block or so, I'd say. I only stopped in for a quick pint (a tasty but not necessarily memorable Pike Kilt Lifter Scotch Style Ale) but noticed that while there was a pretty decent locals crowd soaking up the Mariners game, there was a definite touristy vibe to the place. I wasn't completely sold on it and would like to hit up places like Elysian or the Pyramid near the sports complex for comparison, but would come back nonetheless.

A stroll down the road brought me to the Pike Place Grocery and Deli, which had an arsenal of Northwest and West Coast brews available from the coolers in the back of the store. Nice selection indeed that had me tempted to make some purchases, but I had neither the time to drink them at my hotel that evening nor the luggage to bring them back in as I was armed only with my carry-on bag.

The final stop for the evening was at a non-craft beer dedicated restaurant called Cutter's, yet I was still impressed with the loyalty to and selection from the local craft scene. Tap list included offerings from Mac and Jack's, Pyramid and Georgetown to name a few, plus other local and regional offerings. I enjoyed tasty Manny's Pale Ale with my dinner and called it a night.

Perhaps the best part of the trip beer-wise was the airport and the return flight home. Nothing stellar in terms of rare finds, but the airport itself offered three quality bar selections (The Alaska Lodge, Seattle Tap Room and Anthony's Restaurant) and may have had the best overall selection that I've ever seen at an airport. Locals and regionals dominated the tap handles once again, and after a quick bite and an Alaskan Pale at the Lodge I was off to catch my flight on Alaska Air.

Capping the trip was the option to purchase bottles of Alaskan Amber on the flight. A couple of swipes of my debit card later (cash free only on board Alaska, which I found to be quite convenient) and my return trip cross country was made that much better by a few bottles of said Amber. This alone has sealed the deal for me to book any future flights into Seattle with Alaska Air.

In all, Seattle made a nice first impression on me as a city that is well versed in and dedicated to it's local breweries. I hope to make it back soon to explore even further...


So, the third installment of the resurrected LongShot series from Boston Beer/Samuel Adams has just started hitting the shelves, and I must say that while I look forward to and for the most part enjoy the chosen winners each year, I've never walked away thinking any particular beer was memorable. As such, I've typically purchased one six pack per release and no more, but that's about to change after sampling all three of this year's offerings:

The Traditional Bock is as spot on and solid as can be, but very simple at the same time, and that is what makes this one stick with you. Loads of malt all around with a toasty, bready vibe and a nice bit of alcohol warmth. A great take on the style.

I was a bit hesitant to try the Cranberry Wit, as fruit beers tend to be overly fruity more often than not for me, but thankfully this one avoided said potential issue. Cranberry lingers but does not intrude and mixes very nicely with the spices used here for a well balanced beer that I would love to see replace the embarrassingly awful Cranberry Lambic that wastes two slots in the otherwise great Winter Classics pack that the BBC puts out each Holiday season. This is a nice fall/winter beer for sure.

And finally, the Double IPA: hoppy as hell with citrus and pine notes, plus a big peppery bite, and backed up and balanced with a nice dose of malt. Who cares how this one came to be (it's an admitted clone/slight tweak of Russian River's Pliny the Elder recipe) as long as it's good, right?

Do yourself a favor and try to find this LongShot pack. It may seem a bit pricey at the $9.99 suggested price (although I found mine at only $8.25 here in NJ) given the lower average cost of most other SA products, but it's worth it.

And here...we...go!

Welcome to The Hopback, a blog where yours truly will provide you with the latest news and thoughts on what's what in the world of American Beer. Sure we'll focus on craft been much of the time, but we'll also dive into the Bud, Miller, Coors pool at times as well, especially since all three are dipping their toes in the craft beer pool much more lately.

As a virgin blogger, be prepared for me flub my way through this for a bit until I get the hang of it, but the ultimate goal is to provide you with great craft beer-related content on a consistent basis. Speaking of which, we're going to almost be "all beer all the time," but I'm occasionally going to throw in some posts or reviews of good music and good film when I see fit because, well, that's what I like and that's what I want to do with this blog.

So grab a beer and sit back, enjoy the ride and watch me grow with the should be interesting.